Parshat Toldot: The Blessing of the Firstborn

The Blessing of the Firstborn

And Esav said to Yaakov, “Let me swallow some of this red food for I am tired.” Therefore, his name is Edom. (Beresheit 25:30)

Esav returns from the field exhausted. Yaakov is preparing lentil porridge. Esav asks Yaakov to give him the porridge. Yaakov offers to exchange the porridge for Esav’s rights as firstborn. Esav agrees and the birthright is transferred to Yaakov.

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra discusses the reason Yaakov was preparing a porridge of lentils. He draws an important conclusion from this aspect of the incident. He argues that Yitzchak was not wealthy. His household was forced to sustain itself with humble foods.[1]

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam disagrees with Ibn Ezra. He argues that Yaakov’s preparation of this porridge does not indicate poverty. Yaakov was a tzadik – a righteous person. He had little interest in delicacies. He was content with simple foods and avoided foods which might awaken greater appetite.[2]

It is difficult to understand this dispute. What compelled each authority to assume his respective position? This dispute appears to be the result of a more basic argument. Yaakov purchased Esav’s birthright. What special claim or privilege was secured through this birthright? Ibn Ezra maintains that the first born traditionally inherited a larger portion of the estate of the father. This explains Ibn Ezra’s assertion that Yaakov was impoverished. This poverty played an essential role in Esav’s decision to sell his birthright. Esav observed that his father was not wealthy. He calculated that even a double portion of a poor man’s estate was of little worth. Therefore, he was willing to abandon his rights as first born.[3] From Ibn Ezra’s perspective Yitzchak’s poverty was fortuitous. It is an essential element of the incident. It encouraged Esav to sell the birthright to Yaakov. The poverty might even have been providential.

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam understood the birthright differently. He explains that traditionally the first born assumed the role of kohen, or priest. Esav had no interest in devoting himself to the service of Hashem. This birthright had no value to Esav.[4] Therefore, he sold it to Yaakov. This interpretation underlies Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam’s position regarding Yitzchak’s wealth. From this perspective, poverty or wealth did not play a role in Esav’s decision. There is little reason to assume that Yitzchak was impoverished.

This dispute is expressed in one additional area. The last pasuk states that Esav “sold the birthright”.[5] The term used for “sold” is va’yevaz. This is an unusual and ambiguous term. It is interpreted by many authorities to mean “and he sold”. However, Rashi offers another interpretation. He posits that the term means “and he rejected”.[6] Why does Rashi adopt this interpretation?

Ibn Ezra understands the birthright as the privilege to inherit a larger portion of the father’s property. If this is the nature of this right, its sale cannot be viewed as immoral. It is a straightforward business calculation. Accordingly, Ibn Ezra seems to interpret va’yevaz to mean “and he sold”. This translation does not involve any moral judgment of Esav’s decision.

However, Rashi agrees with Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam. He explains that the firstborn was destined to be a kohen.[7] The abandonment of this right is a moral decision. It is a rejection, or belittlement, of a spiritual opportunity. Therefore, Rashi interprets va’yevaz to mean “rejection”. This implies Esav’s action was a moral judgment.

Yitzchak’s Blindness

And it was when Yitzchak became old that his vision faded. And he called to Esav his older son. And he called to him, “My son.” And he responded to him, “I am here”. (Beresheit 26:1)

Yitzchak approaches death. He decides that the time has come to bless his oldest son. He summons Esav and directs him to prepare for the blessing. Yaakov disguises himself as Esav and receives the blessing destined for Esav. How did Yaakov deceive his father into bestowing the blessing upon him? Our pasuk explains that Yitzchak had very poor vision. This handicap enabled Yaakov to trick his father. Yitzchak could not recognize that Yaakov had replaced Esav.

Rashi quotes an interesting comment from our Sages regarding the cause of Yitzchak’s blindness. Our Sages explain that Yitzchak’s blindness was a consequence of the Akeydah – Yitzchak’s placement by his father upon the altar. The Sages explain that the angels observed Avraham bind Yitzchak and place him upon the altar. Like Avraham, the angels assumed that Yitzchak would be slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice. The angels began to cry. Their tears descended from the heavens and fell into Yitzchak’s eyes. These tears caused Yitzchak’s blindness.[8] It is difficult to understand these comments in their literal sense. Assuming that an allegory is intended, what is its interpretation?

In order to unravel the mystery of our Sages’ comments, we must return to Yaakov’s deception of his father. Why was this subterfuge necessary? Rashi explains that it was actually Esav who intentionally mislead Yitzchak. Esav succeeded in tricking his father into believing that he was a moral, earnest individual.[9] Based on this assessment of his son, Yitzchak decided to bestow the blessing associated with the birthright upon Esav. This would have been disastrous. Yaakov intervened. Taking advantage of his father’s blindness, he disguised himself as Esav and secured the blessing. It is notable that two types of “blindness” are at play in this incident. Yitzchak is “blind” to the true moral character of Esav. This blindness leads to a potential crisis in which Yitzchak was prepared to bestow a crucial blessing upon Esav. Yaakov forestalls this disaster through taking advantage of his father’s physical blindness and disguising himself as Esav. In short, Yitzchak’s figurative blindness precipitated the crisis and his literal blindness was crucial to its solution.

But how could Yitzchak have been so taken in by Esav’s ruse? Yitzchak was certainly a wise individual. He was a prophet. He had a profound understanding of the world and Hashem. How did he not see through Esav’s deception?

Gershonides responds to this issue. He explains that Yitzchak’s wisdom was not necessarily a useful resource in penetrating Esav’s deception. He argues that Yitzchak’s very perfection interfered with his ability to identify Esav’s corruption. Yitzchak was completely devoted to the study and the pursuit of truth. This total devotion deprived him of the ability to sense and to recognize Esav’s true character. He could not discern Esav’s evil and deceptive character. His spiritual perfection left him ill-prepared to deal with Esav.[10]

Perhaps we can now understand the message of our Sages. Our Sages are telling us that Yitzchak’s blindness was a consequence of the experience of the Akeydah. Yitzchak underwent a unique experience. He was almost sacrificed on the altar to Hashem. This experience permanently affected Yitzchak’s values. This close encounter with death, under these unusual circumstances, reoriented Yitzchak’s relationship with the material world. He became removed and distant from this world. Instead, he devoted himself to the world of wisdom and truth. This intense devotion to wisdom and truth left him ill-prepared to recognize Esav’s deviousness. He failed to recognize Esav’s true nature.

Yitzchak’s inability to see through Esav made it necessary for Yaakov to deceive his father. This was the only way he could secure the blessings. A necessary requisite for Yaakov to succeed was Yitzchak’s physical blindness. This blindness made Yaakov’s impersonation of Esav possible. In short, Yitzchak’s physical handicap was necessary because of his inability to see Esav’s true character. This “blindness” to Esav was a consequence of the Akeydah. The Sages communicate this lesson by relating Yitzchak’s blindness to the incident of his offering upon the altar.

The Impact of Approaching Death on Yitzchak

And he said, “I have become old and I do not know the day of my death.” (Beresheit 26:2)

Yitzchak explains that he wishes to bestow the blessing now because he is old. He does not know when his life will end. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir – Rashbam – explains that Yitzchak wanted to transmit this blessing personally. He must act while alive. At his advanced age, he felt compelled to act. If he did not now bestow the blessing, he might lose the opportunity.[11]

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers a very different explanation for Yitzchak’s decision to act at this time. He observes that Yaakov also blessed his children when he was close to his death. Moshe, too, blessed Bnai Yisrael at the end of his life. Apparently, these tzadikim felt that giving their blessings at this specific time was appropriate. Why is this time special?

Sforno explains as a person ages, the individual has the opportunity to advance spiritually. The allure of the material world fades. The physical desires, which may have influenced the person in youth, are now viewed as passing fancy. Faced with approaching death, the importance of the brief period spent in the material world decreases. One can use this opportunity to examine values. This examination should lead to a reemphasis of the spiritual. In a tzadik, this is a natural transition. Attachment to the material world fades with age and the spiritual element of the personality becomes more pronounced.

The bestowal of a blessing is a spiritual endeavor. The blessing requires that the benefactor enter into a very close spiritual relationship with Hashem. In order to achieve this relationship the individual must be able to forsake the attraction of the material world. This becomes easier to achieve in old age and with the approach of death. This is the reason these tzadikim waited for this point in their lives to bestow their blessings.[12]

Yitzchak’s Assessment of His Sons

And Yitzchak answered and he said to Esav, “I have made him a lord over you. I have given to him all his brothers as servants. And grain and wine I have associated with him. What can I do for you, my son?” (Beresheit 27:37)

“Nations will serve you, and governments will bow to you. You will be a master over your brother, and the brothers of your mother will bow to you. Those that curse you will be cursed, and those that bless you will be blessed.” (Beresheit 27:29)

Esav discovers that Yaakov received the blessing that was destined for the firstborn. He asks his father, Yitzchak, for some other blessing. Yitzchak replies that he has blessed Yaakov and that the blessing will be effective. He has awarded Yaakov dominion over his brother Esav. There is no appropriate blessing remaining for Esav.

There is a basic difficulty with Yitzchak’s response because there was an additional blessing. Later in the parasha, Yitzchak bestows upon Yaakov the “blessing of Avraham.” This blessing designated Yaakov as Avraham’s spiritual heir. He would receive the Land of Israel and serve as the standard bearer of the ideas developed by Avraham.

Sforno explains that Yitzchak always realized that Yaakov was the more righteous of his sons. There was no question that the blessing of Avraham was only appropriate for Yaakov. He never considered transmitting this legacy to Esav. However, Yitzchak felt that the blessing of material prosperity and political power was most fit for Esav. Yaakov had no interest in these mundane matters.

Sforno explains that Yitzchak believed that Esav’s domination would be a blessing for both children and their descendants. Yitzchak perceived Esav as materialistic, but good-hearted. His benevolent governance over Yaakov would free his younger brother, and his descendants, from toil in the mundane. Thus unencumbered by the burden of material want, Yaakov could freely pursue wisdom and truth.[13]

Yitzchak’s error was his belief that the “benevolent” Esav would use his wealth to care for his brother, Yaakov. Rivkah recognized that Yitzchak had misread Esav’s nature and she diverted the material blessing to Yaakov.[14]

Prayer and the Natural Order

And Yitzchak prayed for his wife because she was barren and Hashem answered him and Rivka, his wife, conceived. (Beresheit 25:21)

This passage is the first instance in which the Torah explicitly makes reference to prayer. Rivkah was childless and Yitzchak prayed to Hashem and asked that they be given children. This incident clearly illustrates the efficacy of prayer. However, in everyday life the effectiveness of prayer is far less evident. So many prayers seem to go unanswered! Must one be a tzadik like Yitzchak in order to merit Hashem’s attention? Can common people realistically hope that their prayers will be heard?

In order to respond to this difficult issue, we must begin by analyzing and correcting two fundamental misunderstandings regarding prayer.

Many people wonder why Hashem does not answer all of our prayers. After all, Hashem is merciful and omnipotent. He has the power to grant all of our requests. Since this is the case, why does He not simply grant any petition that is sincerely expressed? Remember Tevyah – the poor dairyman in The Fiddler on the Roof? Tevyah struggles in his poverty and asks this simple question: Would it interfere with some grand scheme of the Almighty if he were a wealthy man? Tevyah wonders what difference it would make to Hashem if he were relieved from the burden of his poverty. Certainly, there could be no reason of cosmic importance that should dictate that he must suffer! Why does Hashem not just grant him wealth? Let us consider whether Tevyah is asking a valid question.

How does Tevyah see the world? He sees the events of this world as an infinite collection of unrelated choices made by the Almighty. The Almighty made him poor and the Almighty can make him wealthy. Certainly, to the Almighty it makes little difference whether Tevyah is rich or poor. So, Tevyah asks, “Why does Hashem not make me wealthy?” But is this world view correct?

Nachmanides explains that one of the foundations of the Torah is that Hashem performs subtle, invisible miracles. When we think of miracles, we often recall the wonders described in the Torah – the splitting of the Red Sea and the manna in the desert. However, Nachmanides explains that these overt wonders represent only a portion of the miracles Hashem executes. Far more common are the less visible, subtle miracles He performs. In fact, these subtle miracles are fundamental to the Torah. The Torah tells us that we will be blessed for righteousness and punished for evil. This assurance is predicated on the assumption that Hashem performs these subtle miracles.

What is a blessing? A blessing is some material benefit that is accrued as a reward for acting righteously. Inherent in this concept is that this material benefit was not destined to occur. A blessing is a benefit that is not destined to occur, but results from acting righteously. Nachmanides applies the same reasoning to punishments. The Torah describes material punishments that we will experience if we violate Hashem’s will. These punishments are not destined to occur. Instead, Hashem interferes with destiny in order to punish evil.

Now, let us analyze Nachmanides’ comments a little more carefully. Nachmanides asserts that there is a natural order that guides events in this world. Hashem sometimes interferes with this natural order in order to bless or punish us. Nachmanides maintains that the material world is guided by physical laws and that these laws determine events in this world. When Hashem blesses or punishes us, He interferes with these laws. Nachmanides’ contention is that a miracle is a breach in the natural order. If this is so, then every time Hashem bestows a blessing or punishes us, He is performing a miracle. We may not be able to see this subtle miracle, but, nonetheless, it is there.

It is notable that Nachmanides maintains that the very concept of a miracle implies that there is a normal, natural order; the concept of a miracle could not exist without the complementary concept of natural law. If there is no natural law, then what is a miracle? The very definition of a miracle is a breach in the natural order.

For when I contemplate Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon, and the stars that You set in place – then what is a human being that You should have him in mind or mortal man that You should take note of him. (Tehilim 8:4-5)
When Hashem formed the universe, He created a system of natural laws to guide its activities and processes. It is His will that these laws determine events in this world. He interferes with these laws when He bestows a blessing or carries out a punishment. This means that Tevyah is quite wrong! Hashem created the physical laws that have conspired to condemn Tevyah to poverty. In his petition, Tevyah assumes that the only issue at stake is whether he should be rich or poor. This, however, is not the issue at stake –something much more profound is at work here. Should the laws Hashem created to guide events in this world be abrogated? Should Hashem “compromise” His will on behalf of Tevyah? When the question is phrased this way, Tevyah’s wish that Hashem make him wealthy is not as benign and inconsequential to the cosmic order as Tevyah believes.

Let us now relate this to prayer. When we pray to Hashem, we are asking Him to perform one of His subtle miracles. For instance, someone is sick. We pray for the person’s recovery. We assume that without Hashem’s help this recovery may not occur. We are asking that Hashem interfere with the laws He created to remedy the problem. Like Tevyah, we are asking for Hashem to “compromise” His will!

This raises a question. If every prayer is a request for a miracle and every miracle represents some “compromise” of Hashem’s will, then how can we expect any prayer to be answered? In truth, this is the real wonder of prayer! Many disappointed people often ask why their prayers go unanswered; a more reasonable question would be to ask what induces Hashem to respond to our petitions. Why should He “compromise” His will for us?

This idea in the passage above is expressed by King David. David saw that Hashem was the creator and master of the entire universe. Yet, King David also knew that Hashem cared for and provided for humanity and would even suspend the natural order He created in order to benefit humanity. How different David’s attitude is from ours! We ask why Hashem does not answer all of our prayers. David asks why Hashem should have any concern with our needs!

This brings us to the second popular misunderstanding regarding prayer. What is a prayer? It is generally assumed that a prayer is a heartfelt petition and that the more sincere the supplication, the more likely Hashem will respond. Based on this understanding of prayer, it follows that everyone can pray effectively. Anyone can sincerely appeal to Hashem to satisfy one’s needs. However, let us seek a definition of prayer from the Torah.

A study of the Torah’s treatment of Avraham provides no instances in which Avraham overtly prayed to Hashem. However, the Sages maintain that Avraham did pray and that at least two of his prayers are explicitly recorded in the Torah. In the first instance, Hashem promises Avraham that He will reward him for his righteousness. Avraham protests. What is the value of the reward Hashem will bestow upon him if he does not have offspring? In response, Hashem promises Avraham that he will have children and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.[15] Our Sages describe this conversation between Avraham and Hashem as an instance of Avraham praying.[16] But this conversation does not seem to be a prayer. Instead, it seems that Avraham is debating with Hashem. Rather than presenting himself as a supplicant, Avraham seems to challenge Hashem.

There is another conversation between Hashem and Avraham that our Sages identify as prayer.[17] Hashem tells Avraham that He will destroy Sedom. Avraham protests. He argues that there may be innocents among the people of Sedom. How can Hashem destroy the innocent with the wicked? Surely, this is not justice![18] Again, this does not seem to be a prayer. Instead, Avraham seems to be engaged in a debate. He argues with Hashem and urges Him to do justice. Why did our Sages regard these two instances as examples of prayer?

Clearly, the Sages did not define prayer as the act of a supplicant petitioning Hashem. Apparently, prayer need not even involve supplication. A different definition of prayer emerges from these examples. In each, Avraham is stating a request accompanied by an argument for granting the request. This indicates that prayer need not involve supplication, but it must include an argument favoring the granting of the request. Also, in both instances, Avraham offers similar arguments. He contends that Hashem’s will shall be fulfilled on a higher level if Hashem fulfills his request. If Hashem grants him children, then His promises of reward will far more meaningful. If, in destroying Sedom, Hashem spares the innocent, humanity will recognize Hashem’s justice. In other words, we do not emphasize our needs as much as we express the desire to see Hashem’s will fulfilled in the most complete manner. We petition Hashem by demonstrating an understanding of Hashem’s grand design for a just and righteous world and expressing our desire for the fulfillment of this design.

Let us consider another example of prayer in the Torah. Bnai Yisrael created and worshiped the Egel – the Golden Calf. Moshe prayed to Hashem to spare Bnai Yisrael. What was Moshe’s prayer? Again, we find that it included an argument. Moshe argued that the destruction of Bnai Yisrael would lead the Egyptians to believe that Hashem took Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt just to destroy them in the wilderness. Moshe argues that the will of Hashem will be fulfilled more completely through sparing Bnai Yisrael.

Our own prayers follow this same pattern. Let us consider the Amidah – the central prayer of the service. We ask Hashem for health, redemption, forgiveness and so many other blessings. But, in each instance we make an argument: Forgive us because it is Your nature to forgive and forbear; Redeem us because You are a mighty redeemer; Heal us because You are a trustworthy healer and merciful. In each case, we appeal to Hashem to reveal Himself. We do not emphasize ourselves, we emphasize Hashem. In asking Hashem for His help, we are expressing our understanding of His will and our desire for His will to be fulfilled. This does not seem to be similar to Avraham and Moshe’s petitions.

If we accept our Sages understanding of prayer, it emerges that it is not as easy as is imagined to offer sincere prayer. Yes, it is easy to be sincere in asking for one’s personal needs to be fulfilled, but it is not as easy to frame one’s request as an act of devotion to Hashem.

Through this understanding of prayer we can begin to answer David’s question. We cannot completely understand Hashem’s concern with humanity. However, a partial explanation emerges. We do not ask Hashem to compromise His will in our behalf. How can we expect Hashem to alter His universe for us? Instead, we ask Hashem to act in fulfilling a higher objective. We ask Him to interfere with the natural order in order to reveal Himself.

 

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 25:32.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:29.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 25:32.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:31.

[5] Sefer Beresheit 25:34.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:34.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:32.

[8] Sefer Bersheit 27:1

[9] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 25:28.

[10] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 176.

[11] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 26:2.

[12] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 26:2.

[13] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:29.

[14] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:29.

[15] Sefer Beresheit 9:1-6.

[16] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 16:5.

[17] Mesechet Berachot 26b.

[18] Sefer Beresheit 18:20-33.